As a freelance writer, I’ve become adept at ferreting out facts and chasing down stories — but I had always steered clear of genealogy. Too complicated, I’d heard. Too frustrating. And, since I’m descended from Eastern European Jews, I assumed all the pertinent records would be either inaccessible, incomprehensible, or destroyed in the Holocaust.
Wrong on all accounts, as I discovered when I finally traced the three branches of my mother’s family for my last book, The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century. Jewish genealogy does have some unique challenges, but as I plunged into my family’s history, I became first amazed at what I found, then obsessed, and finally addicted.
“The study of family history is an imperative for a family that traces its ancestry back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” says Chuck Weinstein, cochair of the 36th conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, which will be held in downtown Seattle this August. “Jewish genealogy really begins with the Tanakh and the accounts of the descendants of Abraham down through Solomon and beyond. No other group, to my knowledge, can claim one common ancestor.”
Genetic research confirms what many of us have suspected all along: Jews really are one family. One big, old, multi-branched family — which adds to the challenge of tracking them down. If your family tree has a gaping hole between King Solomon and Safta Tillie, you may feel an urge to fill in the blanks.
Janette Silverman, lead cochair of this summer’s conference and a senior genealogist research manager at Ancestry.com’s ProGenealogists, says that a good first step is to immerse yourself in two classic print volumes on the subject — Arthur Kurzweil’s From Generation to Generation and Finding Our Fathers by Dan Rottenberg. Next, Silverman suggests clicking into jewishgen.org, the massive online genealogical clearing house, and reading the FAQs and InfoFiles on the home page. “By that time,” she says, “it should be apparent what kind of questions you need to ask and what type of forms you need to start your search and organize your material.”
Nancy Pearl had always assumed her mother’s family, who went by the name Bates in the US, came from Kiev (modern-day Ukraine), but when she got in touch with a distant cousin, she learned that this was not true. Before immigrating to the US at the turn of the last century, her grandparents had moved from Starudub in Chernigov Gubernia (the Russian word for region or state) in present-day Belarus to Bakhmut (now Artyemovsk) in Ukraine. She also found out that her mother’s family’s surname had multiple versions: Bates, the Americanized form, was Baitz or Bits in the Old County, which in turn were variants of Bichov, Bychov, Bitchov, and Bichev. If Nancy had searched solely for people named Baitz from Kiev, she would have come up empty-handed.
Now, thanks to the tip from her cousin, she can widen her scope to the variants of her maternal surname in both Starudub and Bakhmut. A quick scan of jewishgen.org indicated that both of these places have community databases, which are potential resources for finding additional family members. Ancestry.com holds registers for Jewish births, marriages, and deaths for Chernigov Gubernia, though they are available only in Russian and Hebrew. And Family Search, the free genealogical site run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, has digitized some of the Bakhmut records. If Nancy wants to keep looking, she can order the relevant rolls of microfilm from the vault in Salt Lake City and have them delivered to a Family History Center convenient to her home (there are 15 such centers in the Puget Sound area).
It’s difficult for Ashkenazi Jews to trace their families further back than the late 18th century, because most Eastern and Central European Jews did not adopt surnames until they were forced to by the political authorities — in 1787 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and 1844 in Tsarist Russia. Before then, Jews used patronymics, naming their children ben (son of) or bat (daughter of) the father’s first name. Jewish headstones frequently carry the names of the parents of the deceased, which is why genealogists are so eager to visit or get photos of them. Sadly, Nancy’s search is likely to hit a brick wall — genealogy speak for a dead end or data void — at her great-great-grandparents’ generation.
Sephardic Jews have a better shot than Ashkenazim at pushing deeper into the past because, as Jeffrey Malka, who runs sephardicgen.com, notes, “Many hereditary Sephardic surnames go back to the 12th century. Unrelated Ashkenazi families may carry the same surname, but that is far less common among Sephardim.”
Howard Behar, a Seattle-born businessman famous for helping boost Starbucks into the corporate stratosphere, is a good case in point. Howard explained that the name Behar comes from Béjar, a town west of Madrid, where he believes the family lived before the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. According to one theory, Jews from Castile and Andalusia were relocated to Béjar, and many chose to adopt the city name as their surname and carry it with them into exile.
Howard’s family history gets a little sketchy after 1492. He knows that at some point his ancestors moved to the Ottoman Empire, where his Ladino-speaking grandparents Moishe and Yaffa met, married at the age of 14 and 13, respectively, and produced 13 children, seven of whom lived to maturity. Albert, Howard’s father, was born in Bulgaria in 1896, came to the US via Canada in 1911, and ended up in Seattle, where he ran a grocery store in Wallingford.
Three and a half centuries separate the Behar family’s exodus from Spain and the birth of Moishe Behar in 1858. Where did they live in the interval? What did they do? Howard has no clue — but if he wants to look for some clues, he can start clicking around sephardicgen.com, where I found a slew of Bulgarian and Turkish Jews named Behar.
It’s also possible that he’ll discover that his family isn’t from Béjar after all. Jeffrey Malka points out that families who originated in the town of Béjar typically carry the surname Bejerano, not Behar. Malka notes that another wrinkle arises from the fact that Behar is a Hebrew acronym of BEn HA Rab, meaning son of the rabbi, an honorific found on some Ashkenazi tombstones. It’s therefore conceivable that the surname Behar, though common throughout the Sephardic world, is actually of Ashkenazic origin. “Could Behar families have originally been Ashkenazis who merged into the Sephardi world and became Sephardised?” Malka asks. “Historically it happened, and not infrequently.
“Real genealogy is about separating family legends from truth,” he says. “Sometimes family myths pan out — but not always.”
Jewish Genealogical Myths & Facts
My family’s surname was changed at Ellis Island.
FACT: Officials at Ellis Island did not change the names of arriving passengers but rather checked their names off against ships’ manifests compiled at the port of embarkation. Our ancestors altered their own surnames, either before they left the Old Country or after they arrived, often when they applied for naturalization papers.
We are descended from eminent rabbis, a noble family, or someone who was richly rewarded by the king.
FACT: “While there may be some truth to some of these stories,” says Chuck Weinstein, this year’s conference cochair, “the majority of them are ‘bubbe meises.’”
All our family records were destroyed in the Holocaust.
FACT: The Nazis destroyed the people, not the records. Some records inevitably vanished, but many remain. You’re unlikely to find documentation on relatives who were shot in the street or killed immediately at a camp, but records exist for slave labor and displaced person camps. Visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem.
My family came from a tiny shtetl that no longer exists or is impossible to find.
FACT: Maybe, but unlikely. Shtetls can be hard to track down, but chances are that some traces remain. Jewishgen.org has a list of shtetls, and it can connect you with others searching for records from the same place. Many shtetls have Yikzor (memory) books that survivors assembled after the war to commemorate the towns and people that were destroyed.